so, last week brought the crushing news that lucky peach, the food magazine founded by david chang and peter meehan in 2011, will be closing this year. they’ll put out their final themed issue, “suburbs,” in may and release a double issue in the fall, and, then, that will be it.
that news gutted me last week.
i first heard of lucky peach when it launched, and i’ve followed it off-and-on since, most times with less concentrated focus because, at first, i didn’t quite “get” their ‘tude and bro-ness. in the beginning, it felt very masculine, very male, like a dude’s club, and i wasn’t that interested in its irreverence, its humor, its aesthetic.
maybe that was unfair of me, but, hey, it was 6 years ago, and things change. we change. magazines change.
last year, starting roughly around may, my suicidal depression started getting really bad again. it manifested, this time, in a lack of focus and inspiration when it came to fiction; i couldn’t read; and i couldn’t muster up much of a desire to keep trying to read when everything felt so flat, which, to be clear, is an indictment of my mental state, not of the books i was trying to read.
that’s when lucky peach came in — that and food memoirs and the one and only season of top chef i have ever watched*.
when i couldn’t read fiction, i turned to food. i spent that summer trawling through all the features on the lucky peach website, opening tens of tabs and immersing myself in different worlds, different cultures, different cuisines. i nursed my growling stomach, my wanderlust, my envy of people who get to travel and eat and write for a living, people who eat and eat and eat, people doing the things i wanted (and still want) so badly to do. i want to travel; i want to eat; i want to see the world.
food writing, for me, has, thus, been a huge source of both comfort and longing. it’s something i’ve (obviously) been drawn to because i love writing and i love food, but i confess that i don’t read a whole lot of it — i find it very white and largely uninspired**. while i’ve been considerably less bothered by the lack of [asian] representation in media or even truthfully, to an extent, in literature, not seeing the food i grew up with, that i love, represented thoughtfully, respectfully, and knowledgeably in food writing has largely kept me away.
one of the greatest things that i think lucky peach has done is that it has shown what is possible. it has shown that there is food outside of what exists in white mainstream america, that we need to pay respect to these cultures (but not so much that we make farces of ourselves), that there is a balance that can be struck between the serious, the irreverent, and the soulful. through its excellent longform journalism, it has shown that food doesn’t exist in a bubble, that it is attached to society, culture, human beings, and history, and it has demonstrated that it is not only worth recognizing the places and people food comes from but that it is also necessary.
maybe it goes without saying (or repeating) that i’m going to miss this magazine a lot.
on a personal level, lucky peach made me think about my own writing in different ways, and it made me think about what i can bring to the conversation about food and culture and who we are. it gave me hope by reminding me of the worlds out there that i have yet to discover, the countries and cities i’ve yet to visit, and it helped me hold onto something good, something meaningful as my life went crashing through rock bottom after rock bottom after rock bottom. even now, as i struggle with renegotiating my relationship with food given my type 2 diagnosis, lucky peach reminds me that this diagnosis doesn’t have to be the end of everything good and delicious, that there are stories to be told about food and eating even within these new limitations.
and, as such, i am profoundly sad to think that lucky peach won’t be here anymore, that there is now this giant void in food writing, so here are 5 of my favorite pieces (i was going to give more recommendations, but my commentary started running long ...). read them while the lucky peach website is still up; it’ll be up until may 1.
* that’s not entirely true; i didn’t watch the whole season. i lost interest once kristen kish wasn’t there — like, what was the point? also, random fun fact: i have yet to finish the restaurant wars’ episode (her elimination episode); i stopped watching at one point because (01) josie was pissing me off (stefan was also fucking annoying), (02) i knew how it would end, and (03), even though i know she comes back and wins the title, i still can’t get myself to watch the judges’ table because kristen!
** feel free to correct me on this.
having lots of food in places that lack food is always awkward. i’ve eaten lobster in nairobi, across town from the kibera slum. i’ve had a filet mignon sandwich after touring the favelas of rio de janeiro. i’ve lived, worked, and eaten well in south sudan, one of the poorest countries on earth. i was based in the remote and rural village of marial bai, overseeing the construction of a high school and educational center; as a foreigner and a guest in the community, i was served three square meals a day while most families struggled for one.
in the moment it feels strange, like playing the fiddle while rome is burning. the feeling is vaguely horrible and acutely hypocritical. but you eat anyway — because the food is there, and you’re hungry. you share your food as much as possible, of course, and make other small gestures (kindness, humility, friendship, humor) to allay the moral dilemma. but you eat. and if the food is good, you savor. there’s some cognitive dissonance at play: you understand that people all around you may be starving, but you enjoy your meal.
in north korea we committed something of a double hypocrisy: we knew people around us were starving, and that we were being served feasts, but we didn’t enjoy them.
this is one of my absolute favorite pieces, one i keep coming back to over and over again. i had this open on my browser for a while before i read it because, while i was curious, i was also hesitant, given how reductive and narrow writing about north korea can be. i was afraid that it might be trite, that it might not really bring anything new or interesting to the conversation, but i was pleasantly surprised, not only with the writer's awareness of himself as a tourist, eating in ways that north koreans do not and can not, but also in how he didn't give way to sensationalism.
north korea, for obvious reasons, is a sensitive topic, and i am always going to be wary when a non-korean goes in and comes back and tries to establish him/herself as an authority. maybe you think that's not fair, and it's a thinking i might have apologized for a year ago. honestly, though, i don't think this wariness of how non-asians approach and treat asian cultures and people and food is unfair of me at all.
i mean, the other side of it is that i genuinely appreciate pieces like this. i appreciate all the writers and chefs and editors who recognize that they are outsiders going into something that isn't theirs and start from there.
when a war happens, the first thing to go is the food.
to be honest, i think this could have gone deeper (i wish it had been longer), and i was hoping chang would give us more because i think this is so interesting. the korean war is something that is not that distantly removed from us; my grandparents lived through it (and through the occupation before); and my aunts tell stories of being young children and having to flee their home.
the war obviously shaped the way koreans eat — and here is where you might expect me to go into how this happened and what effect that has had on korean food today, but i'm going to give you a tangent instead.
one of the things i love about korean food (and this is not something unique to korean food) is how, fundamentally, it's pretty much the same. i mean, korea's a tiny country and hasn't seen an influx of immigration like the states where food itself varies vastly from region to region. koreans, on the other hand, tend to eat the same thing.
the variations, then, are more subtle.
take, for instance, 미역국 (mi-yuhk-guk, seaweed soup). seaweed soup is birthday soup. it's what a new mother is given after she has given birth because seaweed contains a lot of iron, and, for obvious reasons of continuity, it's what you eat on your birthday.
seaweed soup pretty much looks the same wherever you eat it. it's soupy, contains seaweed and some kind of protein, and it's seasoned with 국간장 (guk-gan-jang, soy sauce for soup), 참기름 (cham-gi-reum, sesame oil), and salt. it's made in different ways depending on region, though, and how you grew up eating it. i make mine with beef, sauteeing my meat in garlic and sesame oil before adding seaweed and drowning the whole thing in water to make a beef broth, because that's the way my mother makes hers. her mother, though, was from busan, and made her seaweed soup with clams. my mother's cousins, also from coastal cities in korea, make theirs with dried anchovies.
subtle variations, maybe, but interesting. at least, i think they are ...
banchan translates to “side dishes,” and they are fundamental to korean eating. that is, snacked on throughout the meal with great enthusiasm. banchan is so important that restaurants should be judged by the quality of their banchan — and how often they get refilled.
whenever i see korean restaurants serving broccoli as a ban-chan, i laugh because it’s a source of “what the fuck” to some of us. how was broccoli even introduced as a side dish? is that another attempt to make the unfamiliar palatable and more recognizable to non-koreans? if so, what? why broccoli?!
anyway, this is a good guide to korean ban-chan, which are awesome, even if the illustrations don’t really show you what they actually look like.
(for the record, i did not just go through and deliberately pick out pieces that had to do with korea. i'm korean; i gravitate to the familiar because it's so nice to see — what can i say?)
i think intensity can be bad when it is about those same things but for an individual’s personal gain over the other people in the picture — whether it’s just for the chef, or if it’s a battle of front of house versus back of house. (regan)
three takes on one topic — i’ve never worked in a kitchen or in a restaurant, but i find kitchen culture so interesting. i think the kitchen is this fascinating microcosm that raises questions about gender and sexuality and power, and i love reading about it and how chefs themselves are learning from their own experiences and backgrounds and trying to change things.
(like, i was also reading earlier this week about how the union square hospitality group eliminated tipping and the challenges [impossibilities?] of being a mother and keeping a career in a kitchen and healthcare.)
also, the chang piece linked above was one of the first things i read when i started my lucky peach trawl last summer, and it cracked me up.
pho is so elemental to vietnamese culture that people talk about it in terms of romantic relationships. rice is the dutiful wife you can rely on, we say. pho is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit. (nguyen)
when the bon appetit pho fiasco broke out last year, my immediate reaction was “thank god for lucky peach.” (hilariously, the pho fiasco happened after lucky peach dedicated its summer issue to pho.)
truth be told, when a white person tries to educate people on asian foods and cultures, my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes and walk away. again, maybe this isn’t entirely fair, but my reaction is grounded in two things. first, we don’t need white people to speak for us; we can speak for ourselves; and we likely have a greater understanding of the nuances that exist in our food and culture, anyway.
second, this loops back to what i said in my post about immigrant food. even if a white person might have technical knowledge about a foreign cuisine, i don’t give him/her much credit when it’s clear that there is some level of fetishization going on — and fetishization does not always exhibit in gross, exaggerated, creepy-as-fuck ways like yellow fever. i’m not interested in hearing from a person who wants to take a food culture without respecting the people behind it, without seeing them as fellow, equal human beings who have voices of their own, who come from rich, complex histories that deserve to be recognized and respected.
a magazine that fails to do this loses massive points, too, and it's easy enough to tell when this is happening — when you bypass people of color, the people to whom this food culture belongs, and go to a white person to speak on behalf of a culture that is not his/hers, you are fetishizing a cuisine. you are trying to take and make your own something that does not belong to you, that you have neither right nor authority to speak for.
and there, honestly, is no excuse for this kind of bullshit.
the two pieces above are from that pho issue, and here are a few other great pieces in response to the bon appetit pho fiasco: a great response from andrea nguyen (who wrote "a history of pho" linked above), an op-ed from writer khanh ho, a piece by deborah kim, and this summary by you offend me you offend my family.
by the way, for the record, “i never meant to offend anyone; i’m sorry if you were offended” is not an apology. it shows that you clearly have no idea what you did that was so offensive and, worse, that you don’t care. it also shows that you’re offended that people are offended, that you think people are overreacting and being too sensitive, and, again, that you don’t care — you’re not going to try to learn; you’re not going to modify your behavior and thinking; and you’re going to be a dick again. it’s an asshole statement of “i’m not actually sorry; i’m just hoping you’re dumb enough to be placated by my non-apology just because it has the word ‘sorry’ in it” — to which, babe, whoever you are, you’re really not that clever, and we are not fooled, and we remember.